Hope, Illusion and Imagination: The Politics of Parole and Reentry in the Era of Mass Incarceration


There is a traditional saying when you leave prison, “Leave your shoes but don’t look back.” How could I not look back as I walked down the path to the security building, after being in prison for twenty-two years? I could see the hands of women waving, pressed up against windows divided by bars and chicken wire. I, myself, had done this for many year—watching, and holding my breath. This time I was leaving, I walked through one door of the security kiosk as a prisoner, and only minutes later I came out of another door a free person. I turned around and waved, taking a long look to hold on to my friends, and then I left. And they were left there.

A year later I met with the director of a foundation that supported criminal justice reform work. I asked the director if he would be willing to provide a grant to investigate the lives of men and women serving long sentences in prison. I explained that people serving the long sentences are actually the real leaders in prison and they are the positive role models for the younger people recently incarcerated. Yet, parole boards deny them release over and over again and they spend many extra years in prison. He listened. I hesitated, but then moved forward adding that these are people who have been convicted of violent crimes, usually crimes in which someone died.

He looked at me, shook his head and said, “Kathy, why do you want to help those people? Couldn’t you be interested in some other group?” I took a deep breath and said, “I am one of those people,” and I added that his question was an example of my point. I went on to explain that people in the broader society are becoming increasingly more comfortable advocating for men and women who have committed what are called “non-violent” crimes, especially for those who have received extreme sentencing for drug-related crimes. But to advocate on behalf of those in prison convicted of murder is still rare.

These people are called longtermers, also referred to as lifers in some states. They have picked themselves up after they have landed in prison—after the scattering of their lives, and the harm they did to others. Many longtermers look ahead to more years in prison than they had previously lived, yet they learn to move forward. The longtermers often become teachers, nurses, cooks, or group facilitators of parenting classes or pre-release services. Not only do they learn how to survive prison, but their survival often involves helping others. By demonstrating that they have survived in prison and developed meaning for their lives, the longtermers give newcomers hope.

The longtermers provide another critical lens into the criminal justice system. Parole boards consistently deny release to longtermers—usually using as a basis the seriousness of the crime for which they were convicted, the very act that they will never be able to change. Even if risk and needs assessment instruments show that the individual has the lowest level of risk to return to prison, and even if the individual has a sterling record of transformation and this is acknowledged by the parole board, longtermers are often turned down. The consistent denial of parole to longtermers reveals the mistaken emphasis of the criminal justice system on punishment rather than change, transformation or even public safety.

When I finished explaining all of the foregoing information to the foundation’s director, I stopped speaking, hoping that I had not totally lost him. He thought for a moment, looked at me, and said, “Well, I’m not interested in just interviews with them. If you want to add a study of their recidivism rates, I would consider helping with that.”

The research study that the foundation funded confirmed that longtermers have one of the lowest recidivism rates. The parole denials do not appear to correlate with the issue of public safety. Parole denials are part of a much larger system of mass incarceration that has evolved over the past decades. Punishment has been the driving norm in the criminal justice system, impacting poor people, and people of color, particularly the Black community. The “punishment paradigm” describes the essence of the criminal justice system, and has also permeated the school system, in the form of the “school to prison pipeline.”

The very numbers about incarceration rates, which are now familiar statistics, reveal the emphasis on punishment. There are currently 2.3 million people in the U.S. who are incarcerated, which translates to one out of 100 people in this country. Also, one out of nine African-American males age twenty through thirty-four are incarcerated. Although there are recent decreases in both numbers and rates of incarceration, the United States remains by far the leading incarcerator of the world.

While teaching a module on mass incarceration at the Columbia University School of Social Work, I asked each of the five classes for a show of hands to demonstrate the pervasive impact of the punishment paradigm on a range of different communities. I first asked, “How many of you know someone who has been arrested?” Almost every single hand went up among the 300 primarily white students who are able to afford to attend Columbia University. This exercise demonstrated to my students that arrests and punishments are widespread on a massive level. Furthermore, this reality is not illustrative of just temporary punishment. The quality is more of “permanent,” “perpetual,” or “persistent” punishment that is characterized by the death penalty, life without parole, juveniles in prison, solitary confinement, parole denials, civil commitments, mounting numbers of aging people in prison, punishments after people return from prison, stigma, and exclusion. All of this amounts to dehumanization.

The focus of this article could have been any one of the above – each is serious, and each needs to be dealt with individually as well as together. I selected the issue of longtermers and the parole system partly because it represents my own life experience. It is representative of the women with whom I did time at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, the New York State maximum security prison for women, and the formerly incarcerated men whom I have come to know and work with since I returned home. I chose this focus because the people in prison defined as longtermers are generally typecast and stigmatized by the laws and policies that create separations in release policies including work release, compassionate release, as well as parole, widely-circulated media language and assumptions, and also within many progressive reform groups. These reform groups create the distinction between those who are in prison for “non-violent” crimes versus those in prison for “violent” crimes, which consequently isolates the longtermers.

In order to embrace longtermers as human beings there must be change, which will challenge us to go to the essence of certain key questions: Can people change? Do we believe in or value transformation or redemption? Can we acknowledge the role of race as central to the dehumanization of people in prison? Can we make the connection between crimes that are tragic and involve deaths with the social conditions in which people grow up? Can we overcome the simplistic dichotomy between the categories of “perpetrators” and “victims,” and acknowledge that many people in prison have also been victims? If we can deconstruct this, it will take us to the core of problems within our system and hopefully allow us to make changes. Our current system of permanent punishment is bereft of hope. We should not ignore violence; we should attempt to understand both social and individual responsibility. This perspective views people as being more than the act that brought them to prison; it views them as part of a shared humanity of both the incarcerated person and the person to whom harm has been done.

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